It was a bright sunny summer day when I stepped off the edge of light and fell into a dark sinkhole with the uttering of three little words over the phone. "Baby, she died." It happened that quickly. One moment I was walking out of my bedroom, and as I crossed the threshold to the kitchen and heard those words, there may as well have been no floor on the other side. The descent was quick and steep.
As many of you who have experienced sudden loss know, it is a long and difficult process to grasp what has happened and move forward in new ways. I was a young 26-year-old girl, married with a baby, yet I felt no more than 12. It was my first experience of true loss in my life, it was unexpected, and it was the person I felt the closest to, my mom. That entire month was the sunniest of the whole year. Every day was the same, big bright sun. It couldn't penetrate me or the dark hole I was in. In fact, I raged against it. Flailed and fought, and with every resistive movement, I sunk further down. At some point, I stopped fighting it and just felt apathetic. I would live down here in this dark hole and go about my days forever.
Luckily, I didn't stay there forever. Looking back at the things that pulled me back to the light, a few stand out. People are uncomfortable around pain and grief. They don't want you to feel that way, so they try to reason with you or fill up the silences with things that make you silently scream, "I DO NOT CARE." Yet, there are always a few who can sit with it. The ones who can acknowledge your suffering and let it be. They can sit in the silences, and they can listen to you talk about that day and your person on repeat. They are quietly giving you light, and you don't even know it.
One day, many months after my mom had died and I had resigned myself to living in a quiet depression, my brother asked if my husband and I wanted to go on a hike in the Adirondack Mountains. The hike would take all day; it was one of 46 of the tallest mountains in the area. I had never hiked a day in my life, but I decided to give it a shot. Who knew that hiking all day, struggling up a mountain and back down again, would be like a staircase out of my grief? My husband and I went back again and again. The greatest part of these hikes is that you are together, and yet there is no pressure or need to be constantly talking. We could walk in silence together. It was a kind of healing I never knew I needed. There among the trees and dirt, the huge rocks and roots, every step led me closer to my new self where I can live in sunshine and create a new reality. Where grief and loss are simply parts of who I am. The mountains, the silent and quiet companionship of friends and loved ones, these things saved me.
Years later, I received another call, much like the one telling me my mother had died. This time it was my little brother. Again, I was shattered. Many things were different; many things were the same. One difference was that I had been there before, in the dark hole of grief, and I had learned how to get out. I knew I needed hikes and walks in the woods. I knew I needed to run, exercise, and go to therapy. I didn't realize how much I needed that same quiet companionship until it was offered to me. Knowing I needed to exercise and actually doing it were two very different things. A friend began reaching out to run with me. Again and again, we ran. She would let it be quiet, or she would listen and talk as I needed. There was no shame in walking or taking it easy. She was just there, giving me what I needed. Another friend took me to boot camp classes. I went hiking with my husband and one of my brothers again. I climbed the staircase again, rebuilt myself in new ways around this new loss.
If someone you know is grieving and sad, please know that is okay. It is normal and necessary for them to go through the process. The timeline is different for everyone, so there is no way for you to speed it up or take it away. What you can do is to be there quietly. Listen. Encourage them to move. Nature is profoundly healing, and a walk in the woods could be a step on their own staircase of grief. Walk in the silences without trying to fill them. Witness their grief. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so difficult and uncomfortable. When I am on the other side and witnessing pain, I have the same instincts to make it better for that person. It has been years, but my son will still sometimes tear up and tell me how much he misses his uncle. In those moments, my insides squirm. I don't want him to be sad, but sad is okay. I, too, need to practice my ability to provide the quiet companionship needed in those moments, the validation they seek. It is in that process that we provide them a bit of light.
If you are looking for advice on what types of things to avoid saying in these scenarios, check out our blog post: "What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving"